June 22, 1995 in Nation/World

Supreme Court Gives Ambulances A 30-Day Head Start On Lawyers The 5-4 Ruling Shields Accident Victims From Unsolicited Legal Advice

Knight-Ridder
 

When Florida lawyers sent hundreds of thousands of letters to accident victims or their grieving survivors within days of the accidents, many of the recipients became furious.

“I consider the unsolicited contact from you after my child’s accident to be of the rankest form of ambulancechasing and in incredibly poor taste,” one angry parent replied. “I cannot begin to express … the utter contempt in which I hold you and your kind.”

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court cited such public outrage - and the sagging reputations of lawyers - in narrowly approving a Florida Bar rule that prohibits lawyers from soliciting business by mail from victims and their relatives within 30 days of an accident or disaster. The 5-4 decision is expected to produce rules against such practices elsewhere.

“A number of states are poised to act, and I would expect they would implement very similar rules now that the Supreme Court has given the green light,” said Larry S. Stewart, a Miami lawyer and president of the Trial Lawyers of America, which supports the Florida 30-day rule.

The court majority, led by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, upheld the 30-day rule as a reasonably limited means of shielding the privacy of citizens and shoring up the image of the legal profession.

“The Bar has substantial interest both in protecting injured Floridians from invasive conduct by lawyers and in preventing the erosion of confidence in the profession that such repeated invasions have engendered,” O’Connor declared. She was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Stephen G. Breyer.

A blistering dissent by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy attacked the rule, which was approved by the Florida Supreme Court, as an unnecessary restriction on the free-speech rights of lawyers and a disservice to accident victims in need of prompt legal advice.

“The court’s opinion reflects a newfound and illegitimate confidence that it, along with the Supreme Court of Florida, knows what is best for the Bar and its clients,” Kennedy declared. “Self-assurance has always been the hallmark of a censor.”

Kennedy, joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said anyone who resents a mailing from a lawyer can simply take it on a brief “journey from mail box to trash can.”

O’Connor replied that merely tossing letters in trash cans fails to eliminate “the outrage and irritation” with lawyers who dispatch targeted solicitations within days of accidents.


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